jeen-yuhs – A Kanye Trilogy – Review and Insights

Reading is key to personal growth, but it is harder to dedicate the time needed in an ever-busier world. In the CEO Book Club, we regularly read a selection of business books and provide an executive summary of the lessons and ideas contained within them. Those nuggets can not only give you some immediate insight but also help you decide if the full book is worth reading and relevant to you.

Whilst this segment usually focuses on books, or audiobooks, this week, we have been more than a little obsessed with the Netflix documentary on Kanye West that came out in February. Whatever your personal views on Kanye West, there is no doubt he is a serial achiever, building three separate grand slam careers. He’s his own unicorn with a nett worth of more than $2 billion. 

I took seven key lessons from the documentary that I will be taking with me into the business world. Here they are:

1. No one can do it alone.

Kanye is a visionary and very much an individual, but this doesn’t mean he doesn’t rely on mentors. The central figure in his life is his Mother, Donda. It is no coincidence that his more extreme later behaviour came after her tragic passing. The natural conclusion I would have taken from this is that she is a disciplinarian that once she is no longer there, he has no one to control him.

The opposite is the case.

She is his biggest cheerleader. She has absolute faith that he will achieve his goals and helps instil a fierce belief and confidence within him (as Kanye says “how can you be overconfident!”).

She also keeps him grounded. There is one time she says “When a Giant looks in a mirror, they don’t see a Giant”, the meaning being that as Kanye’s profile grows and grows he must remember his roots and who he is.

A mentor, coach, advisor, one or many, are absolutely key to personal achievement.

2. Nothing beats subject matter expertise, and there is no shortcut.

The documentary starts in 1998 when Kanye is around 21 years old. My immediate thought was how young he looked but how comfortable he is in the world of music production. He’s in his element and he’s phenomenal at it. The initial conclusion is this is a natural talent. However, there is a section early on when we get shown a home video of Kanye at age 6, rapping with fantastic skill. He is so good at 21 because he is a 15-year veteran. No doubt there must be some natural talent, but he has also done his apprenticeship. He is so good because he is a subject matter expert.

The lesson here is that to achieve the best odds of success, work in a sector, industry, or specialism that you are passionate about and can achieve subject mastery. It means even your most unconscious, casual work will be at an expert level whether that be in sales or whatever area you work.

3. “Closed Mouths don’t get fed.”

This is a line in the documentary from Jay-Z. Early on, Kanye was a successful producer for some of the biggest stars, but Kanye didn’t position himself as a producer at any point. He felt it was just a step to becoming a star himself.

There’s a scene when he is working on producing Jay-Z’s album where he starts pitching himself to perform on one of the tracks. He is relentless and Jay-Z eventually agrees and makes the comment that “Closed Mounts don’t get fed”. In other words, if you don’t ask, you don’t get. If you want to succeed, you can never be afraid to ask.

4. “He never tried to be like nobody.”

At the launch party of Kanye’s hard-earned first album, this is how Damon Dash sums him up.

What I take from this is despite being in the presence of some of the world’s greatest artists, desperate to be a renowned recording artist, Kanye was never tempted to be anything but himself. He knew being Kanye would be enough, not a cloned version of Jay-Z.

Whilst you can learn from everyone, you can’t be truly successful moving too far away from yourself.

5. The network is key.

When trying to bootstrap making his album, Kanye is not scared to leverage his position as an in-demand producer to secure favours.

One fabulous example is when he heads over to see Jamie Foxx at his mansion. This is at a time when his record label is dragging his feet and refusing to pay for his studio time. Whilst visiting Jamie Foxx on another matter, he takes the chance to say “Hey, can I use your studio for an hour” and when Jamie says yes, he gets some invaluable time to move the needle on his album recording.

6. Don’t be too shy to self-promote, whatever form that takes.

This only occurred to me towards the end but when Kanye agreed to be followed by a camera crew he was a nobody.

Just a street rapper.

But Kanye knew the power of the publicity that the camera could one day bring.

He also had no doubt that the filming would be one of his eventual triumphs. We can’t all have a camera crew following us, but we can be aware of promoting ourselves and our businesses. No one will do it for us for free.

7. Keep the hunger.

By the end of the second part of the film, Kanye was a billionaire and successful in three different fields.

We join him in the latter part of the film in the Dominican Republic. You could forgive him for just relaxing, chilling in the sun and enjoying the fruits of his labour, but no. Kanye is still showing a passion for business and for making music, working on sneaker designs or grabbing the microphone to work on new material. He clearly has the passion and hunger he has always had.

There is one important disclaimer to this piece. I have focused on his business lessons because that is the focus of the CEO Book Club. However, this is not to minimise some of the troubling behaviours that we see towards the end of the documentary. There clearly has been a descent into bipolar or similar condition and we do see a man on the edge in terms of how he acts. Even worse, we see him surrounded by people who make this worse not better. It’s not my place to comment in detail on this but I don’t think it can pass without at least acknowledging this isn’t just a feel-good, life-affirming documentary.